Gorgeous Michelle Starr
2012 CAC Men’s Honoree Michelle Starr
On Canada’s Pacific Coast, few names command more respect that “Gorgeous” Michelle Starr. Whether as a wrestler, a promoter, or trainer, his contributions to professional wrestling in the region over the past two decades is unparalleled. It is fitting that in 2012, as Starr celebrates 25 years in the ring, that he will be honored by the Cauliflower Alley Club with the Active Men’s Wrestling award.
Starr, who has been a regular fixture at Cauliflower Alley Club reunions for the past several years, was born Mark Vellios in Torrance, California in 1968. He first became aware of wrestling when, at the urging of a friend, he tuned into an episode of WWWF wrestling at about age 15 or 16. He was instantly hooked and started to attend monthly matches at the Olympic Auditorium.
“One time, I was out behind the arena, waiting to get autographs and I met a lot of the local guys who were working on the undercards,” says Starr. “That’s when I became aware of the independent scene and started traveling with anyone that would take me, usually my grandfather to a number of towns – Riverside, Pomona, San Bernardina, even Las Vegas to attend the matches.”
His fandom soon led him to publish a wrestling newsletter entitled “California Wrestling” which covered the matches of the southern California scene, including the matches of men that were starting to recognize him and become friends with him. It was through his newsletter and also that he was always hanging around that he eventually drew the attention of Red Bastien. Bastien, who at the time was the west coast representative for the World Wrestling Federation, recruited Starr first to collect ring jackets from the ring, work as a time keeper on the road, and eventually, Starr worked his way up to a ring crew position – traveling around the southwest setting up rings, often with either the late Scott Peterson or later Billy Anderson.
Through his friendship with Anderson, Starr started to explore the options of getting into the ring himself. He was aware that Billy had started training wrestlers, and his first class had produced some wrestlers of acclaim.
“That first class that Billy and Red trained included The Ultimate Warrior, Sting, The Angel of Death, and Steve Di
Salvo,” says Starr. “When I started training, there were a few guys like Ricky Ataki and Stephan DeLeon in the class who were really active for a while.”
Starr trained under Billy Anderson and Jesse Hernandez and his debut took place on March 2, 1987 in Carson, California on a small independent show. However, as it was hard to get booked as a newcomer in California at that time, Starr looked south to Mexico where he became a regular on cards in Tijuana. He’d travel to Mexico each Sunday for matches, at one time working a stretch of 27 consecutive Sundays.
“It was a great experience. You got to wrestle in a foreign country, in a wild and crazy environment, and get paid to do it too.”
During this era, Starr was also appearing semi-regularly as enhancement talent on WWF and AWA tapings in California and Nevada. You can catch some of his early appearances as Mike Starr in television matches against the likes of Brutus Beefcake, Killer Khan, Dennis Condrey and Randy Rose.
“It was very hard to get booked in California at that time – a lot of the old guard was still around, so as a new kid, it was hard to get booked. I’d get the odd match here and there. I knew that I had to get out of there and I heard from Tim Patterson and Larry Sampson that Vancouver was the place to go. They were always taking green guys and gave them a shot – so I went to Canada.”
Starr became a mainstay for west coast promoter Al Tomko during his final two years of operation. Starr held the tag team titles, the first championship of his career, and engaged in one of his earliest feuds with Tomko’s son, Terry “The Frog” Tomko, on road shows all across the territory. When Tomko folded in 1989, Starr stayed on and remained active with follow up promoters Fred Roselli and Rocky Della Serra for another year or so, and made attempts to break into the Portland wrestling scene as well.
“Wrestling was really different in the early 90’s [compared to the 80’s]. All of the territories were dead, so you could pick up the odd indy show, but there was nowhere to go. Then you had to pick up a day job in between to pay the bills. There was no wrestling at all in B.C. at that time – it was completely dead.”
In 1991, Starr was promoting sports card and memorabilia shows, which were drawing large crowds, and had the idea to use one of these promotions to kick start interest in wrestling again. Booking a venue and holding a sports card show during the day, then a wrestling card at night – he recalls that this early outing wasn’t stellar in terms of the financial end. However, the show did spark some interest and led to the establishment of West Coast Championship Wrestling (WCCW) – a banner that Starr would go on to promote for five years and more than 130 shows across British Columbia.
WCCW featured a number of faces familiar to Vancouver fans from the Tomko era but also regularly included appearances by marquee talent such as Jimmy Snuka, Earthquake (John Tenta), Matt Borne, and others. However, by the summer of 1995, the rigors of operating a promotion, including the financial stresses, had taken their toll on Starr and he closed the promotion, returning home for a time to California, where he maintained a wrestling presence on the southern California lucha libre scene for a six month stay.
When he returned to Canada in 1996, his friend John Parlett had just opened Extreme Canadian Championship Wrestling (ECCW). The promotion, heavily influenced by the Philadelphia-based promotion of a similar name was looking to get off the ground, and implementing an edgier style of matches, was hopeful that this would create a resurgence for wrestling.
“The challenge was, that he had no talent,” Starr recalls. “At that time, there weren’t a lot of good wrestlers in the area, and Tim Flowers – who was promoting locally as well – had tied most of the guys up. When I came in, I took over the book and we started to re-build from the ground up. A lot of guys started to come around and it wasn’t long before we had the territory on fire again.”
Starr recognizes that this era, with the growth of ECCW, was the highlight of his career as a promoter.
“The highlight was to be able to run New Westminster and build it to a venue that drew well enough to support the territory. There were some years that we were running up to 100 dates per year. We were filling the Eagles Hall for two years straight – we had lines of people filling the streets. The fan following that we had from 1996 to 1999 was just incredible for the company and for BC wrestling locally. That was my greatest accomplishment as a promoter.”
Still, while the head of one of the busiest promotions in North America at that time, running in the neighbourhood of 100 dates per year across British Columbia and Washington State, Starr divided his attention between his promotion and his own ring career. In 1999, he appeared across all four western Canadian provinces, as well as dates into California – holding the NWA Canadian heavyweight title and the NWA Canadian tag team titles along the way. The following year, he expanded his schedule to international dates, including matches in South Korea and Japan. In 2001, he spent several months in England for promoter Brian Dixon.
“The secret for Japan and Korea – anyone can go there once, I was able to go over to South Korea for five tours, and then ten tours to Japan – nine tours for IWA Japan and one for Michinoku Pro over three years,” says Starr. “But it was also a bit of right place at the right time.”
“My greatest achievement as a wrestler was getting to go to Japan and main event in Korakuen Hall. Lots of guys dream about doing that, and I’m proud to say that I was able to do that during my career. Now I get the most joy out of going out there on shows and having a good time. I like seeing these kids that I’m training now and seeing them progress.”
At home, Starr was still recognized as the man atop the company for ECCW, overseeing promotions and booking for the company. Operationally, that often left him as the front man in a lot of the towns, also handling details as tedious as ring duty among his other event day responsibilities. There were some ups and downs for the promotion, but despite the turmoil, Starr stayed on as a leader in the promotion from 1996 to 2006 – operating 582 events during that time — when he left the business for a while to pursue other business interests. But in less than a year, Starr was back in the ring as both wrestler and promoter with a re-launch of All Star Wrestling, the brand best known on the west coast from the 1960’s through 80’s. Over the past four years, Starr has invested a great deal of time into promoting on the Canadian Pacific Coast, with another 50 shows or so (and counting) added to his extensive list of credits.
In 2011, Starr has been a promoter in Vancouver for 20 years, longer than any of his predecessors in Vancouver history. Al Tomko promoted for 12 years, Sandor Kovacs before him 8 years, and Cliff Parker had operated the territory for 19 years from 1949 to 1968. All earlier promoters, dating back to 1930, held sway for five years or less in power. In total, Michelle Starr has promoted close to 800 wrestling events in Canada and the United States, and still remains active as both a wrestler and promoter today.
But his contributions to the wrestling business don’t end there. From his early days with West Coast Championship Wrestling, Starr has worked as a trainer, helping to bring aspiring stars into the wrestling game to realize their dreams. Many of his early successes as a trainer paid off at the box office for him locally at home, as graduates would become among the most popular attractions on his own cards.
One of his earliest students, who became a top drawing attraction in specialty matches on West Coast Championship Wrestling shows was woman wrestler (and CAC member) Raven Lake.
“When I first met Starr at 17 years old, he tried to discourage me from wrestling, telling me the truth about the difficulty of success for women wrestlers, but he couldn’t dissuade me,” says Raven. “He asked me if I thought I had what it takes, and when I said yes, he said ‘Well, let’s see what you got’. 19 years later, I am still here thanks to his training and his advice not only on the business, but also in life.”
However, in recent years, the names of wrestlers to spend time in the ring with Starr in their formative months, or those who can credit their start to Michelle Starr include Kyle O’Reilly (Ring of Honor), Nicole Matthews (Shimmer), former NWA World Women’s champion Madison, and Scotty Mac.
“I’ve trained tons of guys over the years. There are many guys that had tons of potential and then left the business behind. Definitely I’m most proud of Disco Fury. He’s always been loyal and he was one of the guys that actually tried to further his career by taking international bookings. He tried as much as he could until he decided to have a family and needed to get his priorities straight. Wrestling wasn’t paying the bills, right?”
One of his current students, Matt Desrocher, currently turning heads on the Canadian independents as Matt Xstatic, has nothing but praise for his teacher:
“Breaking in the business with Starr has been a real experience, you not only get to see the wrestler Michelle Starr but you also see the man Mark Vellios. Michelle Starr is one of the nicest, caring, understanding, helping guys out there in the world and that is from spending so much time with and around him. Starr is a no B.S. kind of guy, he gives it to you straight down the middle. I am grateful for the opportunities he has created for me. Thank you.”
Starr leaves a lasting impression with everyone he meets in and out of the ring.
Approaching his 25 year milestone, what does the future hold for “Gorgeous” Michelle Starr?
“I’ll probably be winding down and taking less and less bookings. I’m 43 years old and I don’t like to go out there and do less than my best. I work hard and take a lot of bumps to ensure that I get my opponents over. I’ll probably focus more on training guys and maybe developing a wrestling-type workout for common people. Like boxercise with a wrestling fitness focus.”
Congratulations to Michelle Starr on his achievements in our business as a wrestler, promoter, and trainer as well as being the recipient of the 2012 Active Men’s Wrestling Award.
*Bio Credit: Vance Nevada